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The much-hyped Volt is finally here. Is it GM's future? Or even the future of motoring?
21 October 2010

What is it?

The future. Chevrolet is not only the first maker to bring a serious series-production battery-powered car to the market, it has, arguably, come up with the most technically intriguing solution.

General Motors insists that the Volt is not a hybrid but an ‘extended range electric vehicle’, making it the first production battery-powered car that can promise not to leave the driver stranded at the side of the road.

GM's announcement on the inner-workings of the Volt's innovative and complex powertrain hit the headlines last week over just what the car should be classified as. Ignoring the semantics, GM will argue that the Volt’s unique layout is best placed to offer the potential of both a purely battery-powered commute during the week and pretty frugal, mostly petrol-powered, longer journeys at the weekend.

The car is based on GM’s new Delta platform, which also underpins the new Astra and Chevy Cruze. It uses the same basic McPherson suspension and the clever U-section Torsion beam axle. Unfortunately, the Volt’s back axle does without the Astra’s clever Watts link. The Volt gets also unique, lightweight wheels and specific Goodyear low-friction tyres.

What’s it like?

There’s virtually no noise when you press the illuminated start button and you only have to pull the (disappointingly awkward and clunky) shift lever into ‘D’ mode to make a silent getaway.

The smooth torque of the electric motors does a surprisingly good job of disguising the Volt’s 1715kg kerb weight. However, like the Prius, the Chevy seems to encourage the driver to flow along gently, rather than to push on.

This is probably a combination of the steady swell of torque, lack of gear changes, the silence of the drivetrain and the dash graphic counting down the distance to discharge.

Even under reasonable acceleration on the local freeways, the Volt’s battery-driven drivetrain mode remains relaxed and refined. There’s none of the audible strain of the racing engine and CVT ‘box that can blight the Prius.


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When the battery is dead, the Volt can pull away on battery’s buffer store and then the engine cuts very quietly at around 20mph to power-up the motor/generator. Only under hard acceleration above, say, 50mph is the engine properly audible. It’s not noisy, but it’s not the most engaging sound either.

On the arrow-straight roads of rural Michigan, it was hard to establish whether the Volt has a spark of enthusiasm for being driven briskly, but what we did experience didn’t bode well.

The steering suffers from nearly a quarter of a turn of light and feel-less response (likely to be partly tyre-related). On Michigan’s hideously broken concrete roads, the Volt suffered from very intrusive bump-thump, though the ride was actually pretty good.

Otherwise it has a very quiet cabin (making front and rear conversation easy) and left me quite refreshed after a few hours at the wheel. Overall, the Volt is easy, fluid and breezy as befits a car tuned entirely for frugality.

Styling-wise, while the Volt’s filmically futuristic exterior is neatly executed, it’s the interior ambience that really impresses.

The cabin – a strict four-seater because the battery intrudes in the shape of a large centre tunnel – is wonderfully light and airy, with a fine view forward through the front doors and windscreen, as well as rearwards, over the driver’s shoulder. The loadbay’s big too, and completely flat with the individual rear seats folded down.

The dashboard layout successfully embraces the Volt’s clean-sheet running gear, using two LCD screens, which deliver a myriad of graphic information. Perhaps most useful are the live representations of the driver’s driving style and use of the climate control system and their subsequent effect on fuel consumption. The console uses a flat, touch-sensitive surface rather than individual buttons.

Should I buy one?

While the Volt has crawled from the wreckage of GM as an extremely innovative and complete machine, there are big question marks over this type of car.

It is very expensive for what amounts to a car that can travel, pollution-free, for around 40 miles using admittedly inexpensive domestic electricity. For many regular commuters, they will probably never use the engine in anger. In petrol/generator mode on the motorway, however, the Volt will probably only return around 40-45mpg.

For European buyers, a diesel-powered Astra will be much cheaper to buy, better to drive and probably more economical. Further down the road, the refining of conventional technology, such as the upcoming 78mpg Mazda 2, show that cars like the Volt will only play a small role in the greening of the mainstream car.

But anyone who is enthusiastic about the car industry should rejoice that the Volt exists. It is an extremely clever and remarkably well-thought machine and a credit to a company that managed to develop it while undergoing a bankruptcy that reverberated around the world.

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Chevrolet Volt

Price: £25,000 (est, including £5000 gov rebate); 0-62mph: 8.9sec; Top Speed: 100mph; Economy: up to 50 miles on one battery charge plus 41.1mpg (est) average on engine/generator; CO2 emissions: na; Kerb weight: 1715kg; Engine layout: Four cylinder, 1398cc, petrol; electric drive motor, electric generator motor; Battery: 16 kWh, lithium-ion; Power: 147bhp; Torque: 273lb ft; Gearbox: Two ratio, planetary gear set

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22 October 2010

In your stats you mention 41.1MPG running in petrol/electric mode. Is that GM's official EPA mileage figure, presumably in US gallons? Just curious as to where the number came from.

22 October 2010

I can't work out whether the Volt is really clever or really stupid. The engineering is undoubtedly some achievement but the weight that the whole drivetrain brings with it is a real issue.

Really, who does this work for? If you are going to do 40 miles a day, then you might as well have an electric car; if you cover 100 miles or more a day, then a diesel becomes a better bet. The Volt actually works for quite a narrow band of drivers - those that cover 50-60 miles a day OR those who normally do fewer than 40 but only very occasionally drive many more.

22 October 2010

It works well for the class of people who mostly do less than 40 miles a day, but couldn't possibly entertain the idea of an EV because very occasionally they need to do a longer trip. I'd say that covers pretty much everyone other than salesmen and delivery drivers.

22 October 2010

Whilst the Astra diesel might be a 'better bet' for European motorists (your bias here is surely cost), I know which car I would rather sit behind. Our govt really needs to get behind low emissions cars now, and discontinue this ridiculous focus on CO2.

22 October 2010

25000£? What a bargain. Prius costs 28400£ here in Finland..

22 October 2010

I'm sure that originally much higher MPG figures than 40MPG were quoted? Is 40mpg really correct? If so then not only is it really disappointing (as the Volt looked like it might be a genuinely ground-breaking car) but it also begs the question why on earth they bothered making an expensive, overweight, eco-car that's not actually that economical? Is its only real difference to a Prius that you can plug it in and run on battery power for 40 miles? If it is, what was all the fuss about?

22 October 2010

[quote RobotBoogie]Really, who does this work for?[/quote]

I think you would be surprised to hear it would work for a lot of people. Most people I know commute to work in the same or next town .... a distance of about 10-30 miles a day. But a lot of them use their car for trips away at the weekend where the distance is vastly beyond the leccy only range.

I don't believe your assesment that it only works for a narrow band of drivers, I think it would work for a great deal. It has the ability to take some great distances and then to run on battery power in town centres etc ..... the car is a good idea.

It would look better in black though, so all the silly blackout trim would not stick out like a sore thumb ... and I was hoping that nasty square instrument binnacle was just because the last car pictured in the mag was a test mule. The pod looks very cheap and nasty, I hope the Ampera does not get this nasty carbuncle.

Good work GM for this car, but this being GM .... what utterly stupid thing will they do to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

22 October 2010

The question is who is going to buy this Chevrolet Volt when they could have a more economical BMW 3 series saloon? You could save a couple of thousand by buying a 316d or spend an extra £2k and get the efficient dynamics 320d with 109g/km co2 and much lower fuel consumption. Like all plug in electric cars how long will it be before the government decides to recoup all the billions of fuel duty and vat it would lose if more than a few bought cars like this? Add taxes to electricity consumed by cars would make electric cars the most expensive to run. Where is all the extra electricity going to come from, as many of our current coal and nuclear stations close due to old age and EU regulations? A few thousand windmills will not replace lost generating capacity let alone be enough for electric cars.


22 October 2010

As winter is coming does anyone know how the volt will heat the cabin? Does the engine fire to produce heat reducing its efficiency or does it have a (high power draining) electric heater?

22 October 2010

[quote Maxycat]The question is who is going to buy this Chevrolet Volt when they could have a more economical BMW 3 series saloon?[/quote] For journeys of 50 miles BMW do not make a car that can match the Volt's economy. For much longer trips you have a point, but it doesn't apply to most peoples' usage of a car. [quote Maxycat]Add taxes to electricity consumed by cars would make electric cars the most expensive to run.[/quote] That's just pure scaremongering. They haven't done it yet. There are no plans to. It would be hard to implement. Pure anti-EV propaganda. [quote Maxycat]Where is all the extra electricity going to come from[/quote] From the cheap overnight surplus electricity and capacity that currently goes to waste. But again, that doesn't fit with the anti-EV propaganda so I guess you prefer not to mention it.


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